What do you do when your CEO has told investors that your company is producing a live-action film, but it turns out you’ve actually made an animated film? That’s the conundrum currently faced by the Walt Disney Company, which is trying to differentiate its new animated remake of The Lion King from the original animated version of the film in 1994.

Sean Bailey. Photo: Sally Peterson/The Hollywood Reporter.
Sean Bailey. Photo: Sally Peterson/The Hollywood Reporter.

Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, has come up with a novel way of sidestepping the issue by telling an interviewer that they can’t call The Lion King either animation or live action.

“[I]t is a new form of filmmaking,” Bailey recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “Historical definitions don’t work. It uses some techniques that would traditionally be called animation, and other techniques that would traditionally be called live action. It is an evolution of the technology Jon [Favreau] used in Jungle Book.

It’s an awkward stance to take for a production that appears to be (at this point) produced almost entirely through the use of established animation and vfx techniques. Rob Legato, the film’s revered vfx supervisor who also oversaw The Jungle Book, has previously explained that the film uses “a lot of virtual-reality tools so it feels akin to what you are looking at [if you were on a real set]. You can walk around the set like a cameraman. [Wearing vr headsets,] the actors can now walk into a scene and see the other actors and trees … and because you are in 3d, you get a realistic sense [of the environment].”

Legato is referring to virtual production, an umbrella term for a variety of evolving vfx techniques that are increasingly common in hybrid productions. (You can read our explainer about virtual production here.)

The constant misdirection about the film’s progressive use of animation technologies won’t make much sense to anyone who is remotely knowledgeable about filmmaking processes. The history of filmmaking is the story of technological progress. It’s why the organization that hands out the Oscars is called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and why that group presents the Sci-Tech Awards alongside the Academy Awards every year. It is downright irresponsible — and needlessly insulting — to discount the work of hundreds of animators and digital artists who are pushing technical boundaries simply because your marketing team feels it can sell something better as a live-action film than as an animated film.

At the end of the day, animation artists appear to be as essential to the new version of The Lion King as they were to the original version. And if you don’t believe us, just listen to The Lion King director Jon Favreau, speaking about his earlier film, The Jungle Book: “You know, every shot is animated. So there is as much animation in this film as there is in every other animated film.”

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